Zombies, Semen, and Big Racks: Inside The Texas Deer Breeding Industry

Photo illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos via Getty
Deer bred in Texas are currently infected with an incurable, highly contagious, zombie-like disease, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the chance that the disease has spread to wild populations across the state is increasing by the minute. And while the disease has previously been identified in several other states, grassroots groups are pointing fingers at Texas deer breeders who they believe have been politically circumventing regulations that would have made it much easier to contain and manage the outbreak.
In March, deer tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a highly contagious, deadly neurological disease also known as "zombie deer disease," due to its long incubation period and profound behavioral changes that tested positive at three Texas holdings in March it can cause. Symptoms include drastic weight loss, stumbling, and it usually leads to death. Although it is not known whether the disease is communicable to humans, CWD "poses a risk to non-human primates such as monkeys who eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come into contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk". , "According to the CDC. Environmentalists and landowners are concerned that the disease has already spread and infected the wild game population of Texas.
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Since March, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has been trying to test deer farms across the state to help contain the disease. While hoping to contain the disease, The Huffington Post reported a few weeks ago that two more sites were found with positive test results, raising concerns among environmental groups and grassroots organizations about how far the disease has spread in recent months. and whether the deer farming industry should be more strictly regulated.
While hunting has always been big in Texas, the deer industry has a life of its own. It all started in the mid-1980s when two wildlife management graduates from Texas A&M published a book called Producing Quality Whitetails, which quickly became the industry's manifesto. The book developed a new purpose for deer herding - the aim now was to strengthen the rural economy and provide alternative forms of income to ranchers who did not have enough land to raise cattle. The book challenged ranchers to think of “deer as a money plant,” and detailed what they feed and how to care for them.
Today, the deer farming industry in Texas is considered at least one major tourism and sales driver for the state economy, grossing about $ 2.1 billion annually. There are roughly 950 deer farms across the state, many of which are something like resorts where deer are raised and visitors pay to hunt them (many argue this isn't actually hunting, but that's another story) . Some of these ranches have swimming pools, others have billiards rooms, and the tallest like JL Bar Ranch have full spas. But regardless of the amenities, the main attraction is the deer, which can be sold for more than $ 17,000.
No, the price does not depend on the accommodation, but depends on the size of the deer antlers, which are often listed in different price ranges on the ranch's website.
"It's a fetish," John Sheppard, executive director of the Texas Foundation for Conservation, an environmental nonprofit that works to help maintain healthy fish and game populations in the state, told The Daily Beast. "It's a race to see who can breed a deer with the largest antlers and sell the trophy for the most money."
In fact, the Texas Deer Association, a pro-breeding group, runs a quarterly magazine called Tracks, which features deer with outrageously large, "grotesque and unnatural" antlers, Sheppard said. The deer are labeled with playful names like "Bad Company", "Big Jake", "The Lawman" and "Bullet Proof" and contrasted against a stark backdrop of lightning strikes, lasers, arctic storms and more. Sometimes the dimensions of the antlers on certain deer are listed, much like a vintage pin-up magazine.
Sheppard has been working to curb this "fetishistic" behavior and has been campaigning for years to see state law enforce more capital requirements for the deer farming industry. Sheppard would like to see more stringent measures on testing for the disease, as well as more restrictions on the movement of deer from facility to facility, which he identifies as a major concern, particularly with regard to the spread of CWD.
"Without such a move, it would take maybe 10 years for the disease to spread across the state," he said. "But because they're shipped everywhere, the disease found its way from western Texas to eastern in less than four months."
Deer breeders, on the other hand, are vehemently opposed to further regulations, arguing that more guidelines would hamper their business. Kevin Davis, the chief executive officer of Deer Breeders Corporation, a pro-deer breeding organization, told The Daily Beast, "There is no industry out there that does more surveillance than the deer industry," citing various CWD testing protocols that breeders provide must perform in order to obtain their breeding license.
However, Sheppard argues that even these regulations are not enough.
In an effort to contain more regulations, deer breeders formed Super-PACS to fund their legislative battles. Another breeding organization, the Texas Deer Association, has a PAC which, according to its website, is used to "positively influence laws that have a significant impact on our industry regulations." This is especially important as "there are opponents of [their] industry [who] want to impose their own agenda on Texas landowners and deer lovers to create unnecessary government regulations that cost our deer industry millions of dollars each year."
Even more interesting is how these PACs are funded. According to the campaign funding records for Texas state lawmakers that received the Daily Beast, many of the donations from this PAC and other ranchers come in the form of "straws."
What is a straw? "A straw is a vial of deer seeds," said Sheppard. And some of these straws are extremely valuable. According to the campaign finance records, a single straw can have a market value of more than $ 8,500.
"I don't know why anyone would want their name on an official document that is donating or even receiving a donation in the form of semen," Sheppard said. "But then again, I'm not trying to understand most of the things that happen here."
Regarding efforts to control CWD, Sheppard argues that it was actually the influence of the deer farming industry on state government that allowed the disease to spread so quickly and for so long.
Before last year, he said, TDWP allowed breeders to collect tissue samples and send them all in before renewing their breeding licenses at the end of the year. Sheppard fought this system for years, and last year TDWP decided to make a change. This new policy requires that samples be sent for testing within two weeks of a deer's death. Coincidentally, however, that was not the case when the first outbreak occurred in March of this year.
Because of this unfortunate timing, it is currently unknown how many deer have been exposed to the disease and the TDWP is making efforts to test as many deer as possible.
Mitch Lockwood, the TPWD's Big Game Program Director, told The Daily Beast that he was concerned and ultimately "not convinced we have found every CWD farm".
While this ordinance was not enacted or amended by the state legislature, Sheppard wonders at the legislature's general lack of involvement in the management of wildlife within its borders and hopes that this incident could allow for more stringent regulation by the legislature.
"One thing I would like to see," he said, "is the outward, visible identification of these deer from birth to death." Sheppard claimed this could be done via an ear tag or a button on the deer. "The need for this is extremely strong in this recent outbreak as these deer have now been brought to release sites and there is no way to identify them."
“The bottom line,” he said, “had the breeders cooperated with our original proposal to track deer from birth to death, or had there been stricter guidelines, like the ones we asked about, well, that would make all the mess can be avoided fairly easily. "
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